VAST LIFE Program Expands Horizons of Students and Future Teachers

Studying a map on his iPad, Owen Smith looks up at the street signs and back down at the map. He looks both ways, then turns right down 34th Street, the correct direction for his destination, the Penn Museum.

The decision prompts praise from the group of students crowded around him on the street corner.

On this Saturday in February, 16-year-old Smith is in a program for high school students with disabilities through Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). Paired with him is second-year GSE student Jenna Albi, keeping track of every move and decision he makes on this walk across campus.

Called VAST LIFE, the program gives GSE students the experience they need to meet Pennsylvania requirements for special education certification with a master’s degree in education, while also helping local teens and their families.

“I’m so proud of you!” Albi tells Smith, who is gripping the iPad with both gloved hands as they approach the Museum, crossing 34th Street after waiting for the “Walk” signal. “We made it here.”

Earlier that morning, Albi and Smith had been in a Penn classroom preparing for this adventure, going over the map on the iPad, as well as the Museum exhibits they would visit, how to order lunch in a cafeteria, and make a purchase at a store.

A sophomore at Council Rock High School South, Owen is diagnosed with autism and verbal apraxia. He has difficulty speaking and communicates with sign language or through technological devices. It can be difficult to understand him. However, when asked about the red carnation he was carrying, his delighted reply, “prom,” was clear.

“I’ve learned there are a lot of different ways people can communicate than just speaking. I’ve worked with him a lot with an iPad,” Albi says, noting that he can type out what he wants to convey. “It was challenging at first, but we have learned how to work through it.”

GSE’s VAST LIFE program pairs Penn graduate students one-on-one with high school students who are 14 to 21 years old and have moderate to significant developmental and intellectual disabilities.

For the special education certification, Pennsylvania requires candidates meet 506 competencies. More than 100 relate to a population of students with “low incidence” disabilities, who require skilled support.

The 24 GSE students who participate in the program are in the second year of the Urban Teaching Residency program. They are teaching full time in Philadelphia schools through Teach for America while pursuing their graduate degrees.

“Our students are not placed with the students who have these types of disabilities, and yet the University has to qualify them to work with these types of students,” says Heather Hopkins, a professor and leader of GSE’s special education curriculum. “We needed something to allow our graduate students to work with this particular population.”

Hopkins created VAST LIFE, which stands for Vocational Academic Social Transition Life Skill Independent Functional Experiences, four years ago to fill that experience gap.

“I think it’s the shining star of our program here. The students are really navigating their own learning,” says Alesha Gayle, Director of GSE’s Urban Teaching Residency program. “I think it’s probably the hardest thing that they do in our program.

“There isn’t a way you can prepare for taking care of a 19-year-old student who needs help toileting until you do it. You just have to do it,” Gayle continues. “VAST LIFE really forces our graduate students to consider the individual needs of those kids.”

The high school students are from Philadelphia and Delaware, Bucks, and Montgomery counties. The program is a service to the families, at no charge. The participants attend six hours for five Saturdays, January through May.

Each Saturday they head out to a different location, including the Penn Museum, Franklin Institute, Reading Terminal Market, and live stage performances. “They learn how to navigate not just Penn’s campus, but the city of Philadelphia,” Hopkins says. “It opens their eyes to different opportunities.”

At the conclusion, the graduate students prepare a custom presentation for parents with photos and videos of the experience, as well as resource information and an assessment to help them better understand their child’s abilities in the areas of social, work, and life skills as they transition to adulthood.

“They give them such a rich toolkit with all the great things their kid did but also what they hopefully can look forward to in the future,” says Hopkins.

For the GSE students, VAST LIFE gives them a window into a new world of teaching, which can be challenging to manage. “My hope is that students come away with a passion for working with this population,” says Hopkins. “This needs to be a calling in many, many ways.”

Many have answered that call. Hopkins invites the alumni every year to come back and assist in the Saturday programs.

“This year I sent an email to probably 70 alums and within two hours of sending out the request I had 50 emails back saying that they wanted to come,” Hopkins says. “That alone speaks to how much the program works.”

Nicole Ryals, who was in the first VAST LIFE program, is one of those alumni. A 2014 GSE graduate, she is now an autistic support teacher at Newtown Middle School in the Council Rock School District.

“VAST is directly responsible for what I do on a day-to day-basis now. Without having the VAST experience, I would not know how to do my job,” says Ryals, who is now pursing her Ph.D. in education.

“If not for VAST, I wouldn’t know how much I would love to work with this population of students,” Ryals continues. “For me it has directly impacted my life and I wouldn’t be where I am without that experience.”

Ryals helps at VAST LIFE each Saturday by collecting data on how the grad students use technology with their teenagers, including iPads and smartphones.

At the Penn Museum, with Albi’s guidance, Smith used his iPad to take photos of skulls in an exhibit about evolution, and they later worked together in the classroom to put the photos in chronological order.

The students also went on other excursions, many to neighborhood stores to choose items and pay at the checkout, going about the tasks as independently as possible, under the guidance of their GSE student companions.

Student Zach Berk, 18, from Newtown, bought a Penn hat at the Penn Bookstore, talking with the cashier as he paid.

“I really want to explore more and have adventure,” Berk says about the VAST LIFE experience. “I’m just expanding. Everything has changed. VAST has made a big change in me.”

Paired with Berk, who is diagnosed with autism, is GSE student Laura Clay, who teaches special education at Kensington Health Sciences Academy in Philadelphia.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes develop in Zach, mainly his social skills,” Clay says. “I’m seeing a big improvement, especially in meeting new people.”

Clay says the VAST LIFE Saturdays require hours of preparation and planning for the lessons and activities, but also for the possible problems. For her the training is valuable, she says, because she plans to focus her career on this student population.

“The biggest challenge for me is playing out in my head scenarios. This is my child, these are his quirks, these are his strengths,” Clay says. “What are all the possible scenarios and interactions that could possibly happen at any moment in these hours we are together, at lunch, on the street, on public transportation?

“Special education teachers have to think differently,” she continues. “You have to hone in on the little things and small moments in life that you don’t notice that you do naturally and plan those moments ahead of time.”

Planning ahead for the VAST LIFE program, organizers Hopkins and Gayle said they would like more high school students from Philadelphia to participate, specifically from Penn’s West Philadelphia neighborhood.

Also they would like to expand VAST LIFE to include more of GSE’s students. Gayle says that next year GSE will open the opportunity to earn special education certification to all master’s program students, not just those in the Urban Teaching program.

Exposing more future teachers to special education and VAST LIFE will serve them well throughout their careers, Hopkins says.

“I tell them the knowledge I give you should come back to you years from now, Hopkins says. “That’s what an education here should give you, years of reflection, not just survival for tomorrow.”

Photo: Penn GSE student Jenna Albi works with VAST LIFE student Owen Smith as they explore an exhibit on evolution at the Penn Museum.

VAST LIFE Program Expands Horizons of Students and Future Teachers